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Can Facebook Really Bring About A More Peer-to-Peer, Bottom-Up World?

This post originally appeared on Techdirt

Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders included in Facebook’s IPO filing contains a pretty bold vision for Facebook to not just connect people and enable them to share, but to fundamentally restructure the way that the world works:

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.

We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate. [emphasis added]

That sounds pretty lofty, but if you recognize that Facebook provides a social networking service that hundreds of millions of people use — but forget for a moment that it’s Facebook — it’s quite a bold “social mission.” And there are many examples of how the service has been used as a key tool in affecting change on everything from opposition to the Canadian DMCA to the Arab Spring. There’s no doubt that the service makes it easier for people to organize in a more bottom-up way.

But, once you remember that it’s Facebook we’re talking about, the vision sounds more problematic. Could Facebook ever truly bring about a peer-to-peer, bottom-up network? The notion seems to be an inherent contradiction to Facebook’s architecture — as a centralized, proprietary, walled garden social networking service. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up structure, but it’s a bit disingenuous for Zuckerberg to decry a monolithic, top-down structure when Facebook inserts itself as the new intermediary and gatekeeper. As a centralized, proprietary, walled garden service, Facebook is a single point for attacks, control, and surveillance, never mind controversial policies or privacy concerns. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up and peer-to-peer network compared to many things that came before, but there is something fundamentally at odds with a truly distributed solution at the core of its architecture and its DNA.

To realize the full potential of bottom-up, peer-to-peer social networking infrastructure, we need autonomous, distributed, and free network services — the sort of vision that StatusNet/Identi.ca or Diaspora have tried to bring about. Rewiring the world to create a more bottom-up, peer-to-peer network is a bold vision for Zuckerberg to put forth — and one that Facebook has advanced in many ways — yet it’s fundamentally at odds with the reality of Facebook as a centralized and proprietary walled garden.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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The Songwriters Association of Canada Wants To Embrace File Sharing, But Does It Have the Right Approach?

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

in 2007, the Songwriters Association of Canada gained some international headlines with a proposal to legalize non-commercial peer-to-peer file sharing through an ISP levy. This sort of proposal wasn’t new, but had not been so prominently put forth by an artist organization before. There were serious problems with the proposal, but it stimulated a healthy debate and it started from many correct premises — that file sharing should be embraced, that digital locks and lawsuits were not a way forward, etc. But it was a non-voluntary, “you’re a criminal” tax that could open the floodgates for other industries to demand similar levies.

I was a member of the Songwriters Association of Canada from 2007-2011, and I had the opportunity to express my concerns about the proposal to many people involved. Last year, I attended a session with an update on the proposal, and was surprised how much it had changed. The proposal had dropped the legislative angle in favor of a business to business approach, with an actual opt-out option for both creators and customers of participating ISPs. Unlike groups behind other licensing proposals, the SAC has actually been responsive to many concerns, and unlike other artist groups, the SAC takes a decidedly positive view on sharing music and the opportunities technology provides to creators. This attitude comes through in the proposal:

Rather than a legislative approach to the monetization of music file-sharing as we originally envisioned, the S.A.C. is now focused on a “business to business” model that requires no new legislation be enacted in Canada.

Our basic belief however remains the same: Music file-sharing is a vibrant, open, global distribution system for music of all kinds, and presents a tremendous opportunity to both creators and rights-holders. […]

People have always shared music and always will. The music we share defines who we are, and who our friends and peers are. The importance of music in the fabric of our own culture, as well as those around the world, is inextricably bound to the experience of sharing. [emphasis changed]

As the copyright debate heats up again in Canada in light of SOPA and new pressures on pending legislation, this positive attitude towards peer-to-peer file sharing was expressed again in a recent TorrentFreak interview with the SAC VP, Jean-Robert Bisaillon:

We think the practice [of file-sharing] is great and unstoppable. This is why we want to establish a regime that allows everyone to keep on doing it without stigmatizing the public and, instead, find a way for artists and rights holders to be fairly compensated for the music files that are being shared. […]

Other positive aspects include being able to find music that is not available in the commercial realm offer, finding a higher quality of digital files, being able to afford music even if you are poor and being able to discover new artists or recommend them to friends. […]

Music is much better off with the Web. The internet network allows for musical discovery despite distance and time of the day. It has sparked collaborations between musicians unimaginable before. It has helped artists to book international tours without expensive long-distances charges and postal delays we knew before. [emphasis added]

However, significant problems remain with the proposal. For example, the original criticism still stands as to how this would scale for other industries — what about book publishers, newspapers, movie studies, video game manufacturers and other industries that are also crying foul about “piracy”? The SAC dismisses other cultural industries pretty quickly, as if only the music industry is concerned about unauthorized copying. And, just like private copying levies have suffered from scope creep, as people no longer buy blank audio cassettes or CDs, or short-sightedness, as technology changes rapidly, it’s not clear how the SAC model would adapt to growing wireless and mobile computing or more distributed file sharing. Many more questions remain: Would small, independent artists, who are not charting through traditional means, get fair treatment? Is it wise to largely rely on a single, proprietary vendor, Big Champagne, for tracking all distribution? Would consumers be paying multiple times for music? What does it mean to “self-declare not to music file-share” in order to opt-out?

But the central problem with the proposal is the SAC’s copyright crutch. Jean-Robert Bisaillon says things like,

The Internet has dramatically increased the private non-commercial sharing of music, which we support. All that is missing a means to compensate music creators for this massive use of their work. [emphasis added]

And the proposal says things like,

Once a fair and reasonable monetization system is in place, all stakeholders including consumers and Internet service providers will benefit substantially. [emphasis added]

The SAC seems obsessed with a “monetization system,” when the truth is there is no one model, no magic bullet. Rather, the the sky is rising and the path to success involves all sorts of different models and creative approaches, most of which don’t depend on copyright or worrying about getting paid for every use. Even a voluntary license plan is still a bad idea. The means to compensate music creators isn’t missing, it’s just increasingly found outside of copyright.

Still, it’s important for the SAC’s voice to be heard as the copyright debate heats up again in Canada. As a creator group offering a positive take on peer-to-peer file sharing, and denouncing an “adversarial relationship” between creators and fans, they offer an important counterpoint to the SOPA-style provisions being pushed by Canadian record industry groups. I would take the SAC’s constructive and responsive approach over record industry astroturfing and fear mongering any day.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Degooglifying (Part I): Email

I’ve begun to write about free (libre) network services, and the hazards of being a tenant on the web instead of a property owner. I began slowly moving away from Google in 2009, but I’ve accelerated that process since the launch of Google+. I thought I’d begin to share my process of degooglification.

To be clear, I still generally trust and respect Google, and I do believe they’re generally less evil than most, but…

  1. Despite great support for open source software, they remain a proprietary software company at their core. Google is a friend to open source infrastructure, but not to free (libre) network services. Specifically, it’s the proprietary network services I’m degoogling from.
  2. The sheer amount of data — email, contacts, documents, calendar, RSS feeds, social graph, phone calls, photos, GPS location, nevermind web searches… — aggregated into a one single account with a proprietary service provider is an obviously bad idea. Even if Google never intends to do anything bad with it, they can make mistakes. Even if Google never does anything bad itself, it’s a single vector for attack from an outsider. And it’s not your account.

Email is one of the easiest services from which to degooglify. It’s also a good example of a multi-step transition.

Changing the front-end

The first thing I did was to stop using the Gmail web interface. I configured my Gmail account in Thunderbird, which I was already using for other email accounts. Google’s commitment to data portability often makes it easy to switch your front-end software before switching the back-end, which can make a transition much smoother. Rather than cutting over cold turkey, you can ease into a new interface. My Gmail account is still active, but it rarely sees any important email anymore. I’ve transitioned 99% of my email to other accounts on domains I control (like this one).

Changing the Backend

Gradually, I started using my blaise.ca email addresses instead of my Gmail account, until eventually I wasn’t getting much email through Gmail anymore. With my Gmail account configured in Thunderbird, it was easy to archive the contents on my computer. You can access Gmail labels as IMAP folders and just copy email from one account to another, and Thunderbird will even offer to synchronize a local copy of your Gmail account. I never used Gmail contacts, but an export and import to Thunderbird would get your data out (more on contacts another time). Lastly, I’m still monitoring my Gmail account via Thunderbird, but I could set an auto-reply and/or forwarder if I really wanted to force that last 1% over. I will probably do that eventually.

Other Considerations

There are a few other perks of a Gmail account that are pretty easy to get from libre alternatives:

  • Hosted: Not everyone is going to run their own mail server, or have a friend or family member who does. But there are hosted, libre services, like riseup.net
  • Storage space: in 2004, 1 GB of email was a huge game changer. Today, it’s not very hard to get that kind of storage space on a server for cheap.
  • Chat: Google uses the open standard XMPP for its chat service. I run my own XMPP server, and there are public Jabber services like jabber.org. I’ve simply added my Gmail contacts to my blaise@blaise.ca XMPP account. More on chat another time.
  • Conversations: The Conversations add-on provides Gmail-style conversations inside Thunderbird.
  • Spam filtering: Gmail has a good track record on spam filtering, but SpamAssassin, ClamAV and a greylisting policy can produce great results on your own server nowadays. I don’t get any more spam to my blaise.ca inbox than I do to my Gmail inbox.
  • Webmail: I love Thunderbird, but not everyone wants to use a desktop client, and you’re not always on your own computer. Roundcube is already a great free software webmail client, and it hasn’t even hit 1.0 yet. Many hosting providers already offer Roundcube to their customers.
  • Mobile: With IMAP, my email is easily accessible from and synchronized between Thunderbird, Roundcube, and my mobile computer’s IMAP client.

Email is probably the easiest thing to degooglify. It can be a smooth, gradual transition, and there are lots of good alternatives, as well as benefits from leaving Gmail. Over the next while, I’ll share my ongoing efforts to degooglify other aspects of my online life.

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Thumbs Down for “Like” Culture

When the “Like” button was first introduced on Facebook, it was a useful alternative to leaving a comment, another way to show you were paying attention, but it crept from posts to comments and pages, and it now permeates every aspect of the Facebook experience and defines the entire ethos of the site. What was at first a secondary option to conversation has been enshrined as the primary and defining characteristic of Facebook. Not only is it often a superficial way to interact with someone else, by just hitting “like,” but it also influences and shapes what people post and share.

Just as stand-up comedians are trained to be funny by observing which of their lines and expressions are greeted with laughter, so too are our thoughts online molded to conform to popular opinion by these buttons. A status update that is met with no likes (or a clever tweet that isn’t retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.

Now, we rarely “show our true selves” offline either, but it’s not self-presentation that impairs authentic social interaction. It’s when automated, superficial interaction becomes the dominant mode of communication. A “Like” or +1 may be better for Facebook or Google than a comment — a simple binary value is easier for their algorithms to tally — but that’s not the kind of human interaction that drew me to social media.

There is so much more value in online social networking than the popularity contest, than merely pressing digital levers, like lab rats looking for pellets of social affirmation. Social technology can enable intimate and in-depth conversations where time, space and fate might otherwise not allow. Ambient awareness can maintain ties that distance and a loss of common circumstances might otherwise break. The ease of organizing can enable groups and communities to thrive where, offline, they might be dispersed. Yet, I’ve seen less of this in the evolution of Facebook and other social media, and more encouragement of the lab rat lever-pushing type interaction. Deep, rich, intimate and profound interactions — expressions of love, nostalgia, unity, shared memories, the meeting of minds, bonds of friendship or common experience — these are much harder for an algorithm to make use of than a binary +1 or “Like.”

Don’t let thumbs and plus ones be substituted for authentic social interaction online.

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Explaining Distributed Social Networking Services

Via the FreedomBox Foundation, J David Eisenberg has created a great comic introduction to distributed social network services. Distributed systems are an important part of free network services.

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Google+ exists to organize people, but I don’t want to be “organized”

There are many things I like about Google+, but, beyond being yet another proprietary social networking service, something just doesn’t sit well with me about Google’s primary purpose. Comments by Brad Horowitz that Google+ will be connected to everything Google are a good example of what concerns me:

Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do — search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube — so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are [emphasis added]

Maybe I’m naive or wrong, but it never seemed like the primary motivation behind Gmail was to sell more ads. It felt like an innovative email service that Google was able to monetize with relevant, contextual ads, not merely a means to improve Google’s ad business. But Google+ feels different. Google’s primary interest is to get access to more social information, not to create a better social networking service. Buzz or Google+ are just the means for Google to gather social data.

As Fred Wilson said with respect to Google+ as an identity service:

It begs the question of whom Google built this service for? You or them. And the answer to why you need to use your real name in the service is because they need you to.

Google is often pretty good at aligning its interests with that of its users. For example, the more useful their ads are to users, the better Google does. Or, the better your web browser is, the more you use the Internet, the more Google thrives. But with Google+, it feels like the desire for an identity data mining tool well precedes their desire to provide a useful social networking platform.

Google+ is not first and foremost “a place for friends” or a way for student life to find expression online. From Google’s hyper-engineer perspective, we are just things to be organized in the process of organization the world’s information. They’ve organized web sites, photos, maps, calendars, videos, books — now, they’re just organizing people.

Maybe Google+ is really no different from other Google services. Maybe I’m just different. I don’t want my relationships with other people, my identity, to be treated as ultimately just data to harvest, information to organize, inputs to a proprietary Google algorithm, a way to teach Google about me as some sort of data structure. Google+ seems to exist more for Google than it does for me.

I don’t want to be treated as just a thing to be organized.

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A Unified Vision for Free Network Services and Mobile Computing?

A couple years ago, I would have said that network services and mobile computing were two new frontiers for software freedom, two new challenges, two new battles. But, despite some key differences, these two areas are so closely related and that I think we need a unified vision for addressing these as two parts of a whole.

Companies like Google have a unified vision. Look at Chrome or Android from Google’s perspective: the purpose of a mobile computer is simply to increase access to proprietary network services. These open source operating systems are designed to run proprietary applications and connect to proprietary network services. From Google’s perspective, mobile computing and network services go hand in hand — open source software is a way to increase the adoption of mobile computers complementing their proprietary network services. While Google’s goal is not software freedom, we should take note of how their strategy involves both mobile computing and network services together. We can’t effectively free one without freeing the other.

The free software movement needs a unified vision for network services and mobile computing. But what might that look like? StatusNet has an Android client, as does Libre.fm, but these are just more convenient ways to access network services from a mobile computer — not network services designed for mobile computing.

Look at the kinds of proprietary network services companies are developing for mobile computing. Google Latitude enables social location sharing, combining mobile positioning systems with online social networking. Last.fm’s mobile applications include some features for finding events based on your location. Google Goggles let’s you point the camera on your mobile computer at something and find information on that thing through Google’s search engine. Apple’s Facetime and Google+ Hangouts (not mobile quite yet…) are attempts to bring video chat to mobile and tablet computers. Social networking services like Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn are focusing in on the mobile space as well.

What does free software have to offer? For location-based services, we have OpenStreetMap. StatusNet offers some location-sharing, but StatusNet for Android doesn’t seem to support this yet. Other than direct map programs, are there libre mobile applications making use of OpeenStreetMap? Could Libre.fm use mobile location data to highlight local free culture events? Regarding something like Google Goggles, are there many libre mobile applications can do something similar with, say, Wikipedia? (Mixare seems like a good example of this.) SIP and XMPP are great for video chat, but I’m not sure many users are aware of public XMPP or SIP services. How can we offer libre alternatives to Skype and Facetime on tablets? What kinds of opportunities are there for libre social networking services, like GNU Social or Diaspora, in mobile computing? What barriers are there to libre augmented reality or location-based services?

More importantly, beyond just emulating proprietary services, where might libre solutions offer new innovations? Where might free software have a distinct advantage, or something unique to offer? On desktop operating systems, the ability to easily distribute and repackage free software lent itself towards the development of package managers — applications that manage all your software installations and upgrades from one place, making it easy to find new software or keep your entire system up-to-date from one application. Meanwhile, on proprietary operating systems, you often have different update managers for each proprietary vendor. and upgrades often involve a purchase and don’t come as easily. Similarly, free software desktop operating systems provide much more desktop integration, as free software applications each contribute to a corpus of tools for the operating system, and distributions can customize software packages to make them work well together. On proprietary systems, each proprietary vendor tries to carve out their own space, and the distributor has limited options to customize software packages from other sources (or you end up with one company’s vision being ruthlessly enforced on any players in the ecosystem, as with Apple).

What kinds of advantages does free software have in developing a comprehensive approach to network services and mobile computing? Is it that libre solutions are often more distributed and less subject to surveillance or external control? That the user isn’t just a product for advertisers? I’m not sure yet myself, but this is something I think software freedom advocates need to consider more directly. Proprietary mobile computing offers convenient vertical integration with proprietary network services. What unique advantages does free software have at the intersection of mobile computing and network services?

Software freedom advocates need to think about network services and mobile computing together. If you take a look at the FreedomBox Foundation, for example, there are a lot of great ideas floating around about free network services… but there seems to be little mention of mobile computing. Yet, people are increasingly interacting with network services through their mobile and tablet computers, rather than just on their laptops. Bradley Kuhn offers another example. He never ceases to share excellent insights on software freedom for mobile computers and network services, but usually as two separate topics. For example, in a March 2010 post entitled Musings on Software Freedom for Mobile Devices, Kuhn writes:

We can take a page from Free Software history. From the early 1990s onward, fully free GNU/Linux systems succeeded as viable desktop and server systems because disparate groups of developers focused simultaneously on both operating systems and application software. We need that simultaneous diversity of improvement to actually compete with the fully proprietary alternatives, and to ensure that the “mostly FLOSS” systems of today are not the “barely FLOSS” systems of tomorrow. [emphasis added]

He’s absolutely right here, but network services form a third necessary category of software for success in the mobile space. In the same way that a libre desktop OS needs libre applications, a libre mobile OS needs libre network services. In a sense, to talk about software freedom on mobile computing without mentioning network services is like talking about building a free desktop operating system without mentioning the applications. And the interdependent relationship between mobile applications and network services is much more complex than application level software for a desktop OS.

It’s not just a question of which libre network services are missing, or which libre mobile applications are missing, but how libre mobile applications and network services can complement each other and work together. Success in one area depends on success in the other. We need to approach network services and mobile computing not just as two separate challenges, but as two parts of a whole, with a comprehensive vision and shared strategy. What might that look like?

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Canadian Telcos Appoint Ex-Cabinet Ministers To Their Boards

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

Two of Canada’s big three telcos have recently appointed former cabinet ministers of the ruling party’s government to their respective boards. A few weeks ago, Bell appointed Jim Prentice, who was responsible for telecom policy and regulating companies like Bell while serving as Minister of Industry in 2007-2008. Then, while former cabinet minister Stockwell Day’s new “government relations” not-a-lobbying-firm has raised concerns about loopholes in lobbying laws, this past weekend Telus named Day to its board. (How long until Rogers aligns with industry standards and finds an ex-minister of their own?) OpenMedia.ca decried both appointments as examples of big telecom “cozying up to the government,” but journalist Peter Nowak argues it’s the system’s fault: “Lobbying is so pervasive and deeply integrated” into the system that the only way to deal with it seems to be to “fight fire with fire,” as even new wireless carriers have quickly learned — i.e. don’t hate the players, hate the game.

Neither Prentice nor Day will be lobbyists, but it seems obvious that their knowledge of government is being sought for the purposes of lobbying. In the broadband space, Bell has been butting heads with the government and regulators over issues like wholesale usage-based billing. In the wireless space, the next spectrum auction is approaching and incumbents want to avoid a repeat of the last auction, where 40% of the spectrum was reserved for new entrants and the government forced incumbents to offer roaming agreements — rules ironically set by Bell’s new board member, Jim Prentice.

Are these appointments examples of regulatory capture? It might appear that way. It’s certainly a case of telcos gearing up for a heavy round of lobbying that’s unlikely to favor consumers, but it’s hardly a case of blatant revolving doors. Day was not actually responsible for telecom policy, and Prentice was behind rules that angered incumbents. If the government favors incumbents in the next spectrum auction or backs down on wholesale usage-based billing, that would be a different story, but Canadian incumbents are scrambling because they’ve lost some big battles. This isn’t so much a cause for deep concern as it is a challenge to those who favor more competition in Canada to keep pressing the government to follow through on what it’s started.

Comments are on Techdirt.

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Facebook Suggests Celebrating My First Wedding Anniversary With a Facebook Message… Or Divorce

A week before my first wedding anniversary, Facebook started to remind me and suggested I celebrate by… sending my wife a Facebook message.

Thanks for the reminder, I guess, but I wasn’t exactly planning to spend my anniversary on Facebook. This brought up some similar stories from friends:

When I removed my “In a relationship” status […] all the targeted ads changed from ‘Buy Engagement Rings Here’ to ‘ARE YOU SINGLE AND ALONE?’

The barrage of wedding ads my wife and I received once we were engaged only subsided when we got married — then, she immediately started receiving ads for baby stuff. As my friend put it, “Facebook is like a really pushy, suggestive relative.”

My wife got the anniversary reminder too, but the next day Facebook stepped up its game and served her a divorce ad.

An hour later, the divorce ad and anniversary suggestion appeared on the same page.

… was it because I didn’t send her a message? Well, there’s yet another reason to move away from services like Facebook

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Four Criteria for Free Network Services

I’m increasingly critical of network services — software that you use on someone else’s server to do your own computing. We rely on computers more and more for our work, social lives, civic engagement, health, education and leisure, and more and more that means relying on networking services rather than our own personal computers. There are serious trade-offs to living as a tenant online, rather than a property owner. I’ve been reconsidering the network services I use and rely on, especially in the shift to mobile computing.

The work of Autonomo.us has heavily influenced my thinking. Also of note is Stallman’s essay on software as a service (though he does more to identify the problems than recommend solutions). I essentially agree with the Franklin Street Statement from Autonomo.us. As a user of network services, I’ve narrowed it down to four major criteria to look for when deciding whether to trust a service on freedom and autonomy.

  1. Free (libre) software
  2. Control over data
  3. Privacy / Encryption
  4. Distributed Systems

Note: This is more of a working list than an attempt at a formal definition. For example, I’m not sure that #3 and #4 should be required, even though I believe they are important. Feedback is welcome.

1. Free (libre) software

Free (libre) or open source software licenses designed for network services, like the GNU AGPL, help guarantee the software will respect users’ freedoms. The arguments for software freedom have been addressed at length elsewhere, but the freedom to run the software yourself is particularly relevant here since, unlike desktop software, you often have the choice of letting someone else run the software for you. Even if you don’t run the software on your own server, having the freedom to do so ensures that you can still run the service in the event that the service provider shuts down — a frequent concern with proprietary web startups after acquisition or failure. And, even if you can’t run the software yourself, with all four freedoms, chances are someone else will. The broader case for software freedom is made at length elsewhere.

Network services should respect users’ freedoms. LibreProjects.net has a good list of free web services and alternatives.

2. Control over data

If users want to leave a service provider, can they take their data with them? Open standards are important. Open standards allow other software to read and understand your data. Open standards also allow you to mix the software you use on the client and server or across multiple devices more easily. Not only does this make migration more realistic, but it makes transitions smoother.

Google’s network services aren’t often free (libre) software, but Google does have a strong commitment to open standards and making your data easily available. I’ve used many Google services from non-Google clients: Gmail from Thunderbird, Evolution and Modest; Google Calendar from Lightning, Evolution, and my N900; Google Reader from Liferea and grr; Google Talk from Empathy, Pidgin, and my N900, etc. I’ve been able to switch my client-side software before changing the back-end. This makes it possible to transition to new services gradually, in smaller steps, with less disruption.

Facebook has a download feature, but it’s slow, and it just chucks all of your data into a giant zip file rather than putting it into formats that other software or services could understand. Facebook has also actively blocked services that export your data to other providers. Your data is available for download, but not in a very useful way.

Migrations are not always planned. On your own server, you have the master key. With a service provider, if you lose access to your account because it’s cracked or cancelled suddenly, will you also lose access to your data? Or will you have an up-to-date copy locally? Open standards often help make it possible to keep a local copy up-to-date, but this isn’t always the default way we use these services. A synchronization service will typically maintain a complete local copy of your data, but services intended to be accessed through the web often require additional client-side set up
on the user’s part to make this happen (e.g. using Thunderbird or OfflineIMAP to keep a local copy of your Gmail email, or using Google Sync to keep a local copy of your calendar and contacts). Or, the services may only offer data dumps as backup. Does a service let you keep a complete local copy of your data easily in your everyday usage? Even if you primarily use the web interface, setting up a desktop client for regular use can help maintain a local copy of your data without having to consciously download backups.

Lastly, public data that is intended to be shared should be available under a free and open licence. Identi.ca uses CC BY for public user data. Libre.fm focuses on freely licensed music. This gives control over public content to the community, rather than just the service provider.

Network services should let users control their data, using open standards to give users control of their personal data and free licences to give the community control over public data. Despite having a very mixed record on other criteria, Google is a good example of open standards done right. Free (libre) and open source tools are also usually good with open standards. Identi.ca is a good example of licensing public data freely.

3. Privacy / Encryption

My concern with privacy isn’t so much what a service provider’s policies are, but who has access to the data in the first place.

With the launch of Google+, I’ve been quite relieved that I’ve moved a lot of my important data out of Google over the past few years. It’s one thing for Google to have my email or my social graph or my documents, but the volume of data that would be in one place using all of Google’s services is astounding. Google is generally a well-meaning company, but I wouldn’t want any single organization to have everything that Google might have: my email (love letters, job applications…), address book (contacts and their private information), documents (budget, resume, business plans), calendar (activities, habits, regular whereabouts), RSS feeds (passions, interests, and political, intellectual, religious leanings), instant messaging (chat logs with friends, lovers, co-workers), my social graph (strong ties, relationships), my phone calls (the ability to recognize my voice from Google Talk or Google Voice), my photos (facial recognition and identification of my family, friends, colleagues) — nevermind all of the revealing personal information contained in web searches! There are lots of questions regarding each type of data and whether or not you’d want to trust it with someone else, but the aggregation of all of it into a single account is a more noticably bad idea. It’s a recipe for disaster in the event of a privacy leak or breach, oppressive government actions, a supeona, the loss or revocation of your account, etc.

Furthermore, some things I simply don’t want on someone else’s computer ever. I’ve felt comfortable trusting service providers like Google with my email in the past, but I’ve never been comfortable trusting them with my entire address book — that’s not just my data, but other people’s private information too. Similarly, I would never want my personal journal on someone else’s computer — that’s just too private.

However, Mozilla does a fantastic job of handling private data. With Mozilla Weave (i.e. Firefox Sync), not only is it free (libre) software that you can run on your own server, but your data is encrypted on the server. A user has two passwords — one to authenticate with the server, another to encrypt the data locally. Since encryption happens locally, the server only sees the encrypted data and never sees your second password. Mozilla doesn’t even ask for the information to decrypt your Firefox Sync data. You can use their server to sync your data across computers, but it’s only ever decrypted on your computers, not the server. If you use Mozilla’s server instead of your own, Mozilla still won’t have access to your data.

I wish more services providers would do this. I understand it doesn’t work for services that are meant to be accessed directly on the server through the web, but at least for synchronization services it seems like a privacy no-brainer. Funambol, for example, is a great libre software data synchronization server for mobile devices, but I don’t think their gratis service at my.funambol.com encrypts your data. I suppose they have a web interface on their server, but I’d rather run my own Funambol server in the absence of Weave-style encryption, whereas I don’t mind using Mozilla’s Firefox Sync service at all.

Encryption of data in transit is another concern. Does a network service or web application offer encrypted methods of communication? Or is your private data being transmitted out in the open? Gmail now offers HTTPS by default. Facebook and Twitter offer an “Always use HTTPS” setting. The EFF has developed a Firefox add-on that uses HTTPS wherever possible. I’ve started using basic StartSSL Class 1 certificates, which are available at no cost to individuals, in order to encrypt traffic on my home servers.

A good network service should take privacy seriously, and offer encryption wherever possible. I’m not sure that this should be a requirement for a free network service, but it’s an important consideration before using a service hosted by somebody else. However, a service that may fail to adequately protect your privacy as a hosted service could still provide an acceptable self-hosted solution.

4. Distributed Systems

Email is a common example of a distributed set of protocols. If Bob uses Hotmail and Sally uses Gmail, they can still communicate with each other. Telephony provides another example; Bell customers can phone Rogers customers, and vice versa. This is the ideal — choosing a service provider independently from the people with whom you want to communicate. Distributed systems strengthen the Internet, creating fewer points of failure or censorship, more opportunities for expression and innovation, more freedom and autonomy for users. This isn’t always relevant for network tools or synchronization services aimed at individuals or small groups compared to social network services and communications tools.

Most online social networking services are walled gardens. Facebook users can only talk to other Facebook users, MySpace users can only talk to other MySpace users, etc. In this environment, social pressure has negative effects on freedom and autonomy. You might not feel comfortable using Facebook, but if that’s where your social circles are active, you’re faced with the choice of being left out or using a service provider with which you’re uncomfortable.

Google Talk makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than developing their own proprietary walled garden instant messaging service, Google used the open standard XMPP (aka Jabber) for its chat service. With XMPP, you can chat with people on other servers. I have a Jabber account on my own server (and there are dozens of public Jabber servers), and I can still talk with (or call) people on Gmail Chat. I’ve left Google Talk, but I’m not cut off from Google Talk users. Compare that to Skype, which has so far relied on a proprietary VoIP protocol that only lets Skype users call other Skype users (short of bridging to traditional telephony).

In the social networking space, there are efforts like GNU Social/StatusNet and Diaspora to develop distributed solutions. StatusNet has already had some success implementing an open standard for distributed status updates. I’m curious whether Google+ might advance the cause of distributed social networking services (even slightly), given Google’s commitment to distributed systems and open standards elsewhere, and their development of new standards like OpenSocial.

Social network services should be distributed, allowing users to communicate across service providers. Email, traditional telephony, XMPP/Google Talk and GNU Social/Diaspora are all good examples of this. I’m not sure that this should be a strict requirement for a free network service, but the freedom to run the software on your own server is pretty useless for some social applications if you can’t communicate with people on other servers.

Conclusion

Identi.ca, the flagship StatusNet site, is a perfect example of a free network service. It’s free software (AGPL), implements open standards and documented APIs for accessing your data, they’ve pioneered an open standard for distributed networking, and public updates are licensed freely. I’m happy to use Identi.ca.

Mozilla’s Firefox Sync is a good example of a free network synchronization service. Data is encrypted, it’s free software that can be run on another server, and bookmarks are stored locally in a format that other applications can read. I’m comfortable using Mozilla’s service for Firefox Sync.

AGPL network sync services like Funambol and Snowy are also libre services (free software, open standards or documented formats), but in the absence of Mozilla-style encryption, I’d prefer to run them on my own server. The FreedomBox Foundation has been working on an easy way to run libre services from a home server, and make them available to others. I currently use a combination of always-on GNU/Linux home computers available remotely and some dedicated servers that I manage. Even without your own server, you can use free (or more freedom-friendly) hosted services like riseup.net for email, jabber.org or others for instant messaging, my.funambol.com for mobile sync, Mozilla Firefox Sync for bookmarks and browser data, Identi.ca over Twitter, Voip.ms (SIP) over Skype, Libre.fm over Last.fm, etc. If you’re looking to try out some of the self-hosted services, I do have Snowy, Funambol, and Tiny Tiny RSS running on my home server — contact me if you’d like an account to try them out.

The process of disentangling from proprietary network services can take some time, but it’s well worth it for the sake of freedom and autonomy, even when it may be challenging in the short-run. If you can’t leave a proprietary service right away, recognizing where it fails to meet these criteria can help you take some important steps in the meantime.

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